Today’s housing crisis means strangers are now sleeping two to a bed

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Housing policy and Virginia Woolf might not seem immediately obvious bedfellows but the writer, born during the Victorian era, may have struck on a solution to the almost Victorian levels of overcrowding plaguing British families today. Not everyone needs a room of their own to write fiction, but they certainly do to live happily, rather than simply survive.

In 2011, a student complained to me that he was struggling with university work because of a lack of sleep. Floating possible reasons for his insomnia – stress, depression, over-reliance on caffeine – I asked if he’d spoken to his GP. No, he said, the problem was the flatmate who shared his bed and snored too much. The “flat” he was paying £70 a week for turned out to be space in one of two double beds in a room in a three-bed property housing 12 people. The landlord had tried to convince another student to sleep on an inflatable mattress on the kitchen floor as well, but a rat problem had put them off.

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Since then the London borough of Newham has implemented a landlord licensing scheme in an effort to banish Rachmanite practices such as this, as well as “beds in sheds”. But the practice continues, as the latest raids on overcrowded properties show. This week one east London councillor described the living standards being uncovered by investigators as a return to “Dickensian England”. But a swift search on Gumtree reveals a plethora of room and even bed shares available, from the West End to Barking. If you’re lucky, you’ll get space in a bunk bed. If not, you’ll be sharing a double bed with a complete stranger.

Areas where overcrowding is worst aren’t areas with the highest rents. Waiting lists for social housing are longer than ever, and with so many families facing homelessness, living in an overcrowded home but still sleeping under a roof pits you against single mothers imminently facing a night on the streets with their children. The London Poverty Profile found that Newham had a 25% rate of overcrowding in 2013. One-in-three working people were in low-paid work, one-third of children lived in poverty, and the borough had the second-highest unemployment rate in London at 10%. For a landlord, knowing all this, offering to house more people in the same space, charging less per tenant but more overall, is a no-brainer, as long as you can override basic human decency.

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This isn’t just a London problem: it’s a low-pay problem. In south Wales, several houses on a street I lived in were full of low-paid workers trying to save enough to spare themselves the ongoing misery of sharing a box room with three other people. Last year, theEnglish Housing Survey reported 652,000 households living in overcrowded conditions in 2012-13. 6% of those were social or private renters.

Both a shortage of genuinely affordable housing and low pay mean a considerable chunk of the population has little choice over where they live. Barely able to afford the cheapest rent available in a squalid, overcrowded flat near the only job they’ve managed to secure, they’re “hard-working people” in the sense George Osborne continuously bangs on about. But having the temerity to be poor still renders them unworthy of sympathy.

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The effects of overcrowding often include mental health problems, stress, respiratory and sleep disorders. Children’s educational and emotional development can be severely inhibited. Overcrowding is also strongly linked to family breakdown. Meanwhile, Conservative MP Philip Davies was happy to stand up in parliament this week and argue that legislation to force landlords to make homes fit for habitation was an unnecessary burden, despite the fact that, according to Shelter, 250,000 homes don’t meet this standard.

Cracking down on rogue landlords and making sure work actually pays could both help to stop overcrowding. It seems less likely that there exists the political will to make either of those things possible.

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